Thanks, J.J., for Boldly Taking Me Back to Where It All Started

No film review this week. But I give thanks to JJ Abrams for the new Star Trek movie at The Front Page Online.

And you thought pigs couldn't fly.

Thanks, J.J., for Boldly Taking Me Back to Where It All Started


the ladder - secret hospital (part 4)

The Ladder – An experimental web-only fiction series that spans multiple story lines and characters…Tune in every Wednesday for a new installment.

Eyes only. Handle via CATA-9 channels only.

Wonderland – Red Cell 1
Dr. Harriman Seldon Poole
Patient code-named Red Queen
07/15/09 3:47 pm (continued)

Dr. P: (4 second delay) Thank you, Maram. I appreciate you saving my back. Would you care to try? (2 second delay). No? Yes? No? That’s all right. Perhaps next time. My first purpose in meeting with you today was to assure you that I’m not going to follow the usual script with the usual suspicions. Second, I want to clarify the way I see things, where I stand. (2 second delay). Those soldiers out there? There not bad people. But I’ll be the first to admit that they reinforce the very idea I’m here to rub away: that you are so unique that you have nothing in common with the rest of us. I’m here to tell you that whatever differences you have from us, and I understand these are significant physiological differences with unique psychological consequences, we share the same roots, the same planet, the same history.
RQ: Prick us, do we not bleed?
Dr. P: (5 second delay) Something along those lines. A quantitative difference, not a qualitative one despite what all the bad comic books and sci fi stories would have us believe. You are unique, yes, but just as human. I can assure you of that. But I’m getting too uptight, here. I don’t really want to start things off so formally. I just arrived. I wanted to introduce myself to you. Get some first impressions.
RQ: What a piece of work is a man.
Dr. P: Such stuff as dreams are made on. (3 second delay.) And on that note, I’m going to get settled into my new home, so to speak. I will see you again soon. (4 second delay.) It was a pleasure to meet you.

TFPO column: we have a budget...what next?

I've been under the weather this week, to abuse a clichéd turn of phrase, so this week's column is a just a mild musing on a topic that isn't generating nearly as much outrage and attention as it should. It did post on Monday, as scheduled; I've just been tardy with the blog. Sorry.

On to this week's question, then, at The Front Page Online:

We Have a Budget...What Next?


theatre review: a midsummer night's dream

From a reviewing standpoint, classics like A Midsummer Night's Dream come with a built-in limitation in the amount of interpretation to be enjoyed. It's a play that has already been endlessly dissected by theatre experts and Shakespeare scholars, and there comes a point whether it really is possible to say anything about the play that hasn't already been said before. Perhaps it would be different if the production itself were done in a wildly unconventional way - setting it in a different time period or going hog-wild with postmodernism, for example - such that the context of the play's events are changed. But this production at the Theatricum Botanicum is very much a traditional one. And there's nothing wrong with that, except that it means evaluating the production's quality rather than delving into uncharted territories.

Having said that, the Theatricum Botanicum is a wonderful venue. The prices aren't cheap-cheap, but for this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream it's worth it. So if you get the chance, head out to Topanga Canyon to experience...

A Magical Summer Dream at the Theatricum Botanicum


the ladder - blueprint (part 1)

The Ladder - An experimental web-only fiction series that spans multiple story lines and characters…Tune in every Wednesday for a new installment!

The doorbell chimed an off-key Big Ben. Eriq stomped down the small stairs – the elephantine racket earned him disapproval, shot across the living room by a woman who could stare down a stampede of Pamplona bulls without flinching – and nearly pulled the front door off its hinges. On the porch of the small side-gabled California bungalow stood a mod young man, twenty-something, short blue-black hair, rugged east European face whose paleness was accentuated by the black jeans and smoothly-cut blazer. Buddha as a well-dressed vampire.

Eriq put out a hearty hug. “What’s up mah niggah?”

“Hey there, honky!”

From the couch, Mrs. Robertson furrowed her brow, creases appearing in her otherwise smooth dark skin, lips tightened together. She set down her copy of the LA Times and looked over her turtle-shell reading glasses, dark eyes serious but not without a twinkle. “I wish you boys would stop that.”

“We’re just taking back the power of words, Mom,” Eriq grinned. “C’mon, Vlad mah niggah, let’s hit the headquarters.”

Bemused yet despairing, Mrs. Robertson watched them climb the creaky stairs to the attic space, shaking her head, then returned to her newspaper when they disappeared from view.

“You’re such a fucking stereotype,” said Vlad when he emerged from the narrow stairwell. The attic space that served as Eriq’s bedroom was a tight space further enclosed by stacks of comics, piles of randomly strewn clothes, and tattered, layered posters of everything from Star Wars to the Hulk movie. It was a slovenly artist’s den; the only reasonable fragment of space was the large drawing table next to which was a cabinet of neatly ordered drawing pencils, sketchpads, and other supplies. Eriq himself was no great embodiment of tidiness. The proud bearer of an old-school Afro and three-day old stubble, he wore carelessly maintained, torn blue Levi’s and a white t-shirt on which was written in thin red letters “ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US.”

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck that. Let’s talk about this mess you’ve gotten us into.”

A quick phone conversation the night before – Vlad talking at an amped-up pace, barely remembering to breathe. The announcement was shocking, like winning the lottery or finally being rid of a Republican president. After months of carefully cultivating contacts sown at Comic-Con and through various friends at the major houses, Vlad succeeded in arranging a meeting with a muckety-muck who had the power to make shit happen. But that wasn’t the shock. The shock came from learning that the pitch for a new comic book character, vaguely worded and stuffed with lofty visions, had worked. Eriq and Vlad, the artist and the writer, didn’t have long to work up a fully-developed proposal.

“Mess, huh. You’d rather keep doing those cheap porno comics you won’t tell your mom about?”

“That’s low, man. Boobella is not cheap porno.” Then, mumbling, eyes cast down towards a floor covered in a stained beige carpet: “And that was way before we did The Grave Captain’s Chronicles.”

Vlad laughed, muttered something about photocopies distributed to rockers coming out of concerts on Sunset Boulevard, then became serious when it seemed like Eriq would pull one of his notorious mopey faces. That was never a good sign for getting productive work done.

“All right, then,” said Vlad. He looked around for a place to sit while Eriq took to the squat stool in front of the drawing board; Foam stuffing from the stool’s cushion poured out of a tear when Eriq sat down. Vlad merely looked for a place to sit that could be cleared off without touching any of Eriq’s laundry.

“So what did we promise the suit?” Eriq said. “What are we supposed to do exactly?”

“He wasn’t a suit, honky. And let’s please not have the kind of conversation a bad writer would inject into a story. The kind in which two characters obviously know what they’re talking about but talk about it anyway for the benefit of readers.”

Eriq’s eyes, alert and restless, settled on Vlad with an intensity worthy of his mother. Unperturbed, Vlad returned the stare as if possessed of an infinite reservoir of cool.

“All I remember is our mouths going blah, blah, blah and the suit nodding his head and going blah, blah, blah.”

Vlad sighed. “At least you remember we promised to deliver something huge, right? I mean, fucking huge?”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” All mockery suddenly stripped from his voice, he asked with great concern, “But how are we going to create a better Superman in less than two months? For Christ’s sake…a Superman better than Superman!”


TFPO column: what happened to the noble enemies?

I admit it: the ridiculously hostile rhetoric surrounding Obama, the Sotomayor confirmation...it's particularly annoying these days. Whatever happened to civil disagreement? Agreeing to disagree? Or - and this is truly radical, I know - compromise? In other words...

What Happened to the Noble Enemies?


film review: harry potter & the half-blood prince

The Potter series continues to astonish with its consistently high quality. But I'll say this: it helps to go into the movie with some distance from the book. I suspect that anyone flush with all the book details will be distracted by the differences between book and film. As it happens, it's been a year since I've read the book. With enough detachment, it was possible to enjoy the movie as a movie without it clashing with what I remember reading.

A Potent Mix of Magic, Love, Fear, and Terror in Half-Blood Prince

Entertainment: ** (out of two)
Craft: ** (out of two)
Gold star recommendation!


Morbid Outlook: july in rotation music reviews

As unusual as it for me to venture into music reviews, I couldn't turn down Mistress McCutchan, editrix extraordinaire of Morbid Outlook, when she offered me an especially successful In Rotation for the July edition.


the ladder - secret hospital (part 3)

The Ladder - An experimental web-only fiction series that spans multiple story lines and characters…Tune in every Wednesday for a new installment.

Eyes only. Handle via CATA-9 channels only.

Wonderland – Red Cell Alpha
Dr. Harriman Seldon Poole
Patient code-named Red Queen
07/15/09 3:47 pm

Dr. P: Good afternoon, Maram. I am Dr. Harriman Seldon Poole. I’m sorry to tell you that Dr. Forrester has…(2 second delay)…retired. (7 second delay.) I see. Well. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so sorry. (3 second delay.) First things first. I much prefer to be called Harry. It’s only fair if I should call you Maram. And second I want to be clear that my goal is to get you out of here. By which I don’t mean, obviously, breaking you out. I mean to help make it possible for you to walk out. (4 second delay.) I understand your skepticism. In fact, I hope to prove to you that I understand your position. For the moment, however, it has to be enough for me to say that I’ve been a psychiatrist for over twenty years and while you may think of the profession as consisting of pill-pushing shock-jockeys, I’ve made it my mission in life to raise psychiatric care to something compassionate and, yes, humane. So when I say I want to help you walk out of here, help you to be free of these rather impressively thick walls, I mean it. Fresh air. Freedom. No soldiers with guns. A future. (9 second delay.) I understand. You’re skeptical. You’ve heard this before. Dr. Forrester was…(3 second delay)…I’m sorry. You don’t like thinking about him, do you? I promise I won’t mention him again. Clean slate. (5 second delay.) And I know that with the clean slate comes a need to prove that I am here to help you. So I would like to propose a little exercise. No, not ink blots. No word associations. Actually, what I’m proposing is, I admit, a little silly – one of those things they do in team-building efforts. What I would like you to do is stand in front of me with your back towards me and let yourself fall. I will catch you. It’s a silly thing, I know. But it does help establish trust…(7 second delay). All right. I’ll tell you what. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to fall into my arms. But as gesture on my part I will stand right here and count down from. And at one, I will let myself fall backwards and trust that you will catch me. Ready? Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.


TFPO column: men should share the contraceptive burden

I don't have much by way of a preface for this week's column, other than to say that it is a rare response to another TFPO contributor. What can I say? The gentlemen asked for comments and ideas. Asking a bloviating columnist for an opinion is like asking a politician to kiss babies, only less sleazy. The title, I think, gives it away.

Men Should Share the Contraceptive Burden: A Reply to Mr. Hennessey


theatre review: spamalot

"Spamalot" presents one of those catch-22s in art criticism. As a production, it is uniformly excellent. As a comedy, it doesn't lend itself to analysis. Without recourse to literary interpretation - who wants a discussion on the Jungian perspective of the Knights Who Say "Ni!" - all that remains is to offer description. And description risks spoiling the experience. This review of "Spamalot" illustrates what happens when too much thought goes into trying to resolve these sort of esoteric problems.

Get Thee to a Shrubbery: See Spamalot

film review: public enemies

The moral of the story is: past successes can be a burden.

Public Enemies...and the Shiny Tommy Gun Shoots Blanks

Entertainment: * (out of two)
Craft: * (out of two)


the ladder - secret hospital (part 2)

An experimental web-only fiction series that spans multiple story lines and characters…Tune in every Wednesday for a new installment.

The dull, gunmetal elevator doors, clunky and of dubious stability despite their thickness, slid open to reveal a low-ceilinged lobby better suited to a profitable high-end corporation than a military hospital. Black polished concrete floors, rough cement walls the colour of oatmeal, white plaster ceilings with smoothly recessed fluorescent lighting that cast a diffuse, omnipresent light – the space was modern and minimal, warmed only by the circular receptionist and guard desk crafted from a grainy, amber-coloured wood. On the wall behind the desk, in plain sans-serif letters: US ARMY MEDICAL RESEARCH AND MATERIEL COMMAND – RAD 5. The universal symbol of medicine, the staff with entwined snakes, and the insignia of the USAMRMC, both etched into steel panels backlit with a soft white light, seemingly hovered above the text.

The young uniformed woman behind the desk, an attractive Scandinavian blonde, offered Dr. Poole the first genuinely human smile he’d seen while on base. Next to her, an older crew-cut man whose uniform rank insignia marked him as a Sergeant didn’t smile, but was nonetheless polite in carrying out his duty. Again, the Doctor showed his ID. His name was checked against a list in the computer, photographs were compared, and the card returned with the promise of a welcoming committee and lanyard ID he was told to wear inside the hospital at all times. As he waited, Dr. Poole marveled at the subterranean nature of AFFTC (D3). He couldn’t guess how much of the base was, indeed, below ground but of course it was a sensible countermeasure to the continual parade of orbiting spy satellites. Brilliant, if unconventional, was hiding the USAMRMC Experimental Psychiatric Hospital and its highly-classified patients within the country’s most secretive and ironically famous facility.

Soon enough, a jovial black woman with long straightened hair, a sharp jaw line and equally sharp brown eyes emerged from the frosted glass double-doors to the right of the desk. She wore a mock-wrap tunic the colour of a pinot noir with white piping along with matching scrub pants.

“Welcome to…”

“Area 51?” smiled Poole.

The woman looked at him with an air of put-on offense. “I was going to say welcome to Wonderland.”

“That’s good. We wouldn’t want to get started with a cliché.”

They laughed and she introduced herself as Jazara Jones, registered nurse.

“You’re a lieutenant, I understand?”

“That’s right. My mom was in the army Medical Corps, and before her was my granddad. All officers.” She laughed. “Granddad was good old country doctor.”

Dr. Poole smiled politely and murmured some kind of vaguely-sincere appreciation, then steered the conversation towards the purpose of his visit. As they talked, they navigated a set of stark door-lined corridors that reminded Pool of a favoured film, Brazil. The close quarters of the hallways, the numbered anonymity of the heavy steel doors – these were reminiscent of Gilliam’s set for Information Retrieval, where workers occupied tiny rooms laid out in dehumanizing rows and crammed with plumbing and bare furniture. Perversely, Doctor Poole rather liked it, finding some strange comfort in the geometrical, artificial environment. It was precisely the sort of canvas that human nature, as vague and imprecise a concept as any, could paint itself on. A healthy human nature, that is; one of sound mental states. What a chance for the human to define itself, but in confrontations with the dehumanizing? Of course, the Doctor did not subscribe to this sort of environment for any of his patients. He was of the firm belief that the troubled needed healing natural environments; grass between the toes, trees filled with fruit and birdsong, long winding trails. Though he understood the necessity for keeping his newly acquired patient in the highly secure facility unimaginatively code-named Wonderland, the reports he had read suggested it was entirely the wrong environment for her psychological well-being.

“How long have you been assigned here?”

“Over two years, Doctor. She’s a sweet young woman, despite…everything.”

As they navigated the rough concrete corridors, with the Doctor just as keenly aware of the restless eyes of security as Lt. Jones was indifferent, they reviewed a few basic facts. The patient, designated by the code-name Red Queen, was born Maram Abdul-Azim Zuhdi Hasouna in Gaza sometime in 1991. She was discovered in the rubble of a demolished house by an American Red Cross worker subsequent to an Israeli shelling – retaliation for Hamas-launched rockets – that killed her parents, grandfather, two brothers, and aunt. Given the direct nature of the hit, it was considered a miracle that she had survived at all – by witness accounts, the entire roof collapsed over her cradle, which was found in pieces. Although the aid worker found relatives to care for Maram, it soon became clear she was unusual in many respects. The strangest involved behavioural oddities, such as never crying, and biological oddities such as never getting sick. Most troubling, however, were the reports of developmental problems despite the absence of any neuro-physiological damage. Although capable of speech and fond of reading, she most often remained mute. At times, she refused to eat until forced, but even that presented problems in that she was several orders of magnitude stronger than any child her age could be. The poor girl also suffered from screaming nightmares that, inevitably, she never discussed. Eventually, Maram’s family encountered the aid worker again and begged for some sort of medical intervention. Through a torturous bureaucratic chain, this led to the Israeli, than the US, military removing Maram from both her family and the aid worker’s care. Eventually, her journey culminated in Wonderland.

“Your predecessor remained convinced to the end,” Lt. Jones said.

“PTSD, yes. On the surface that might be a helpful diagnosis. But I like to reserve judgment for myself.”

Wonderland’s corridors were neither labyrinthine nor dizzying but strictly ordered along a simple grid and colour-coded. Dr. Poole was not yet familiar with the hospital’s protocols and did not understand the significance of the colours or the guard placements. Even the medical staff’s uniforms were colour-coded. For his immediate purposes, however, the inner workings of the hospital remained a distant second to his much-anticipated introduction to Maram. As he and Jones finally reached red sector, obviously the most isolated and secured part of the hospital, he noted that euphemistically-named “patient quarters” involved the most sophisticated containment technologies available to the military. And a small but intimidating contingent of heavily armed and armored guards wearing one of those onyx-black super-soldier outfits Dr. Poole often read about in futurist speculations. After their identities were checked yet again, Dr. Pool was cleared to enter Maram’s cell. A single vast door confronted him; massive, impenetrable, solid steel and titanium.

“What sort of threat could a single human being pose that requires…all this? The report…”

Lt. Jones smiled, a strangely sad expression Dr. Poole made note of for later consideration. The locks disengaged with a resonant metallic clang and the door swung open.


TFPO column: an under-reported death in the state of Califonia

Apparently, some fellow named Don Lemon criticized critics of all this Michael Jackson supersaturated coverage as being “elitist.” His reason? The supersaturated coverage of Princess Diana’s death supposedly didn’t receive the same level of criticism – how elitism explains the disparity is something that Mr. Lemon doesn’t get into detail about.

I can’t speak to the coverage of Princess Diana’s accident except to say that I was just as sick of it as I am of Jackson’s. In regards to the coverage of Jackson, however, I do think it plays exactly into the same sort of media-frenzy that surrounds the cultural obsession with celebrity – Princess Diana included. There’s something sinister about it all.

A tip of the hat to Jessica Gadsden and Adam Fox for their influence on this week's rant.

An Under-reported Death in the State of California

film review: wait your turn

Would it be helpful if I gave the star rating in these little blurbs? Let me know.

In the meantime, this week's review is of an indie film distributed by Echelon Studios.

Wait Your Turn: Waiting A Long Time and Nothing To Show For It


the ladder - secret hospital (part 1)

A web-only fiction series that will span multiple story lines and characters…tune in every Wednesday for a new installment.

State Route 375 – the “Extraterrestrial Highway” for the tourists – in Nevada’s remote desert landscape. Winding dirt roads. Dust and beating sun. A seamless blue sky joining the endless reddish ground at a horizon that seems infinitely far. It was a long, pensive drive through the beautiful wasteland. Through it all, Dr. Harriman Seldon Poole rejected the kitschy UFO obsession of local tourist traps exploiting the region’s alien mystique but appreciated instead the more earthly alien qualities of the desert, especially in contrast to the legendary, contrived status of his destination.

After entering Nellis Air Force Range territory down in Tikaboo Valley, he traveled Groom Lake Road, taking note of the buses with workers from Alamo and other nearby towns, the desert camouflage Jeep Cherokees that formed part of the security patrol, and the numerous warning signs notable for their emphasis that the use of deadly force was authorized. After a good fifteen minutes, during which he keenly felt the extensive surveillance that came with visiting one of the country’s most secretive facilities, he passed by the row of orange posts that marked an official border and drove his sky-blue Prius to the barrier alongside the boxy white guard shack. An unobtrusively placed sign announced the entrance to AIR FORCE FLIGHT TEST CENTER (DETACHMENT 3).

“ID and destination,” said the severe young man in the tan-coloured uniform. Dr. Poole surrendered his military-issued, biometric-encoded identification card and waited patiently as the guard compared the photograph with the person. Mild olive skin; kindly, surprisingly patrician face for one so young; bright blue eyes; the sharply refined features and demeanour of a Pharaoh – the photograph didn’t do justice to the man, of course, but the guard had no interest in such things.

“Administration Building C, Logistics,” said Poole. The guard swiped the card through a hand-held fingerprinting device and handed the machine to the doctor. After placing his thumb on the small scanner plate and receiving the green light, Poole returned the device to the guard who verified the authorization and nodded curtly. The passenger door opened and another young man, just as serious as the first, took a seat with his M16 held carefully between his legs. Unfazed and with great dignity, Dr. Poole drove off, looking ahead of him to the dry white salt flat of Groom Lake with its airstrips and clusters of non-descript buildings. Next to him, his chaperone remained silent – more serious and attentive in his duties than any the Doctor had seen at other bases. Once away from the entrance station, Poole made sure to follow the precise directions given to him; deviation from his route into areas limited to the personnel involved in aircraft flight tests would earn him his chaperone’s disapproval.

The base was nothing special as far as bases went. Boxy buildings, hangars, utility structures covered in snaking pipes and HVAC equipment, barracks – the only useful description for these vital base elements came from their lack of descriptive features. But for all the carefully cultivated ordinariness of AFFTC (D3), the studied nonchalance, it glowed with the unmistakable aura of importance. Dr. Poole, a civilian through-and-through, was not entranced liked the scores of tourists hoping for a privileged glance at the base’s highly classified operations, whether the banal testing of experimental aircraft or the imaginary nonsense from which fanciful conspiracy theories were spun. He rather wished the patient he had come to see had been housed in a non-military hospital. These were, however, unprofessional and unproductive thoughts; he went where his medical duty dictated.

After a slow drive through the base, he finally reached the long blocky building marked Administration Building C. Chaperone still by his side, he swiped his card through the reader by the double-doors and entered into a bureaucratic realm as pretentiously ordinary as everything else on the base. A uniformed receptionist greeted him from behind a pile of paperwork and, on checking his identification, directed him through an open pit of identical metal desks, through a plain wooden door, into a corridor lined with numbered doors, and finally through the door marked 9 - Medical Procurement. Once inside the plain office with its gunmetal desk and Spartan chairs, the chaperone passed Dr. Poole on to yet another uniformed guard who checked his identification and fingerprints before performing a retina scan using a binocular-like device. Satisfied that Dr. Poole was, indeed, Dr. Poole, the guard buzzed him through an unmarked door, behind which was not a room but a utilitarian elevator that led to one of the base’s many underground facilities.

To be continued...